On April 2, the National Archives and Records Administration debuted its first release, for online searching and reviewing, of full individual census records, those from 1940. While aggregate data is released immediately, individual records must be kept confidential for 72 years; thus the availability now of the 1940 census. This first ever online release was via the website 1940census.archives.gov.
Sound like a boring bunch of old data?
Not to many people. In fact, so many people decided to access 1940census.archives.gov on its launch day that the site crashed.
Which I personally think is cause for great joy. I think it is a cause for celebration that so many people wanted to explore the history of their family, community and history.
I didn't help crash the site on April 2, but I added to its burdens. With that site running slowly, I looked instead at the archives overview of the 1940 census at www.census.gov/ 1940census.
There I watched the 1940 training films for census takers (also called enumerators) and enjoyed a peek into the past (the newfangled machines that tabulated census results were termed "mechanical marvels of accuracy and speed.")
I was finally able to access 1940census .archives.gov and start looking for the records of my parents' families, kinfolk and neighbors.
I didn't know a street name for my parents' households; my parents grew up on farms in a remote area of Kentucky. So I reviewed the county maps and, knowing the general area they grew up in, quickly found their enumeration district.
I soon found the data collected about my parents.
There were no surprises. I wasn't expecting any. And yet, I was fascinated.
With just a little examination, the data begins to tell a story of a different time, of individual lives as well as an entire population irrevocably impacted by the Great Depression. Of how people of that era lived -- levels of education, household compositions, immigration. Of how neighborhood and rural areas formed around ethnicity and occupations.
The other day, as my husband and I entered a hardware store, we overheard an elderly man say in a thick accent we couldn't quite place, but in a tone of unmistakable sadness, to the much younger clerk, "no one knows the real history of my people ..."
What a tragedy, to lose a history. What a comfort that the effort is made to preserve the state of a population, in a given time, through words and numbers. And what a comfort that many people care about that history.
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